One of the most popular trees of all time, Japanese maples are tougher than they look, easy to grow in the right spot (be careful about afternoon sun) and require only basic pruning to look their best and grow into their naturally beautiful form. Here are some pruning basics for Japanese maples:
Japanese maples can be selectively pruned almost any time of year but the best times for major pruning are winter before leaf buds begin to swell and early summer before temperatures exceed 80 degrees F. With no leaves in winter it’s easy to see the branch structure and make the right cuts. In summer you can judge the right amount of thinning needed to see the structure of your tree.
The goal of pruning is to encourage the tree’s natural growth habit. Attempting to restrict or reduce the size of a Japanese maple that is genetically programmed to reach a certain size does not work in the long run. The tree will simply grow faster and become more unruly. If you don’t know your particular tree’s habit do a Google image search to see what it is supposed to look like. Trees usually fall into two categories: upright forms like “Bloodgood” and smaller, weeping forms like “Crimson Queen”.
The starting point for pruning both types of trees is to look for broken, dead or deformed branches. You will usually spot deadwood near the tips of branches or in the interior of the tree. Avoid removing only the tips of branches as this will result in rapid and unruly growth. Instead, remove either a part of the branch back to a ¼” or so above a healthy bud, the half-moon shaped swellings spaced along the branch which is facing the way you want new growth to go, or, remove the entire branch back to the branch collar, the swelling where the branch attaches to the main trunk or parent stem. Always avoid cutting into a branch collar (a flush cut) on trunks or main stems as these are often entry points for disease and pests.
Next, you will want to remove crossing branches that are rubbing against each other or will interfere with each other as the tree grows. Wounds created by rubbing allow insects and diseases to enter a tree.
Branches growing inward or in the wrong direction are the next to go. These will include branches growing through the middle of the tree, downward on an upright form or branches growing upward on a weeping tree.
One of the keys to making Japanese maples look great is to separate branches into overlapping layers that don’t touch each other. With that in mind, look for branches growing parallel. Thinning these branches creates helps define the structure of the tree and adds interest.
Work from the bottom up and inside out. Take your time and periodically step back and inspect your work from different angles. Look at your tree from the base up following each branch upward to decide what and where to prune. If you are unsure, don’t cut.
Make sure your pruning tools are sharp. Bypass pruners are best for cutting branches as thick as your middle finger. Pruning saws are best for anything larger.
Remember, if you have don’t have much experience pruning, if you just don’t know where to start or if you have any questions about how to prune and care for your Japanese maple please visit on of our stores and let one of our experts guide you. We grow Japanese maples, have them in stock year round and we like talking to our customers about them!